Famous Antikythera Shipwreck may Still Hold Priceless Treasures

10 October 2017

Archeologist Brendan Foley discovers a bronze disc, at first thought to be part of the Antikythera mechanism
Marine archaeologists investigating the ancient shipwreck that yielded the Antikythera mechanism — a complex, bronze, geared device that predicted eclipses and showed the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky — have recovered a wealth of treasures, including bronze and marble statue pieces, a sarcophagus lid and a mysterious bronze disc decorated with a bull. The artefacts were trapped under boulders in a previously unexplored part of the site near the island of Antikythera, Greece, and the researchers think that large parts of at least seven statues are still buried nearby.

The discoveries are “extremely exciting”, says Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. Only a handful of bronze statues survive from the ancient world, and they have almost invariably been treated and altered by previous conservators, undergoing processes that destroyed much of the information scientists might have gleaned from them. “Technology has improved so much,” says Lapatin. “We can learn from these untreated finds.”

The first-century-BC cargo ship, discovered in 1900 by sponge divers, is famous for yielding a heavily encrusted and corroded geared device that used to predict eclipses and chart the skies. The sponge divers also retrieved many other priceless items, including luxury glassware, jewellery and a two-metre-tall bronze statue, dating from the fourth century BC, nicknamed the ‘Antikythera youth’.

The Statue
The recovery of multiple ‘orphan’ statue pieces — limbs without matching heads or bodies, for example — suggested that several statues still lie buried here. So an international team of archaeologists and divers, co-led by Brendan Foley of the University of Lund in Sweden and Theotokis Theodoulou of the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Athens, is now re-excavating the 50-metre-deep wreck site to look for them.

The team has made a stream of discoveries since work began in 2014, including wine jars, giant anchors, gold jewellery and a human skeleton, which is now being analysed for DNA. But the statues have remained hidden until now.

On 4 October, the team announced that during a 16-day dive season the previous month, they found several major statue pieces, including two marble feet attached to a plinth, part of a bronze robe or toga, and a bronze male arm, with two fingers missing but otherwise beautifully preserved. A slim build and “turning hand” gesture suggest that the arm may belong to a philosopher, says Theodoulou.
Other discoveries this season include a sarcophagus lid made from fine, red marble, more human remains and wooden ship planks and frames that the researchers hope will reveal information about the vessel’s size and shape.

The team plans to return to Antikythera in May 2018, to break up the boulders and excavate beneath. “It’s going to be a major operation,” says Foley. “But we think it will be spectacular.” 

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